For the Broke and the Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday
August 29: Ten Hidden Gem Books in X Genre: Pick a genre and share with us some books that have gone under the radar in that genre!
For this one I decided to go with Magical Realism. It’s a weird genre that, by it’s very name, contradicts itself. Magic in these books is presented alongside the every day things we all know. It’s not really “explained”, we just go with it For those unfamiliar with it, some of the better known titles in this genre include One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The House of the Spirits by Isabella Allende, The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Authors such as John Luis Borges, Alice Hoffman, Toni Morrison, Laura Esquival, Haruki Murakami, and Junot Diaz are all known for using this to different degrees. I chose some lesser known works that qualify as “hidden gems”. Some of these veer pretty far into the “magical” side of the genre, while others are more firmly grounded in the real.
1. There’s No Place Like Here by Cecilia Ahearn- Twenty years ago, Sandy Shortt’s classmate disappeared. Since then she’s been obsessed with missing things. So much so that finding missing people becomes her life’s work. Jack Ruttle hires Sandy to find his brother, Donal, who vanish a year ago. But while she’s working on the case something strange happens. She stumbles on a place where missing things- and people- end up. Those socks that she thought the dryer ate? The teddy bear she lost as a kid? And all the missing people that Sandy’s struggled to find over the years. But now Sandy is struggling to find a way to get back where she belongs. Ahearn is an Irish writer who has some lovely work in this genre. I also recommend If You Could See Me Now, Thanks for the Memories, and The Book of Tomorrow.
“It’s difficult to know which second among a lifetime of seconds is more special. Often when you realise how precious those seconds are, it’s too late for them to be captured because the moment has passed. We realise too late.”
2. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter- Carter is one of my all time favorites. Her writing is beautiful. In this book, Jack Walser, a turn of the century American journalist, interviews and investigates Sophie Fevvers. Sophie is a circus performer who is said to be part woman and part swan. Jack wants to find out if she’s legit, and so he joins the circus, following it through Europe and getting bizarre, fantastic story of Sophie’s life. The characters are larger than life, but so is the circus, so it all fits.
“She sleeps. And now she wakes each day a little less. And, each day, takes less and less nourishment, as if grudging the least moment of wakefulness, for, from the movement under her eyelids, and the somnolent gestures of her hands and feet, it seems as if her dreams grow more urgent and intense, as if the life she lives in the closed world of dreams is now about to possess her utterly, as if her small, increasingly reluctant wakenings were an interpretation of some more vital existence, so she is loath to spend even those necessary moments of wakefulness with us, wakings strange as her sleepings. Her marvellous fate – a sleep more lifelike than the living, a dream which consumes the world.
‘And, sir,’ concluded Fevvers, in a voice that now took on the sombre, majestic tones of a great organ, ‘we do believe . . . her dream will be the coming century.
‘And, oh, God . . . how frequently she weeps!”
3. Forever by Pete Hamill- In 1741, Cormac O’Connor seeks to avenge the death of his father. So he follows the murderer from Ireland to New York City. On board the ship, Cormac meets Kongo, an African slave. He saves Kongo, and gets shot himself in the process. Kongo’s priestess, grants Cormac eternal life, and eternal youth, in return; but only if he never leaves the island of Manhattan. We follow Cormac for over two hundred years, as he becomes involved in the American Revolution, hangs out with Boss Tweed, witnesses epidemics, and watches as the city grows and changes; and sees all it’s beauty and ugliness co-existing. Once we’ve accepted the magic that grants Cormac eternal life, the book is more historical, though hints of fantasy pop in here and there. It’s a bittersweet story, because Cormac sees the world as few experience it, but he also remains outside of it- confined to a tiny island, forever young, watching those he cares about as they age and die. Hamill also wrote Snow in August, another magical realist novel that is set in historical NYC, though this one veers more into the fantasy genre toward the end.
“I don’t know what that means. To truly live.”
“To find work that you love, and work harder than other men. To learn the languages of the earth, and love the sounds of the words and the things they describe. To love food and music and drink. Fully love them. To love weather, and storms, and the smell of rain. To love heat. To love cold. To love sleep and dreams. To love the newness of each day.”
4. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen- Josey Cirrini lives an uneventful life. Her guilty pleasures involve romance novels and sweets, which she eats in her closet. She lives in the North Carolina town of Bald Slope with her widowed mother. One day, while in her closet having a sugar fix, Josey finds that it’s already occupied by Della Lee, a local waitress who is taking refuge after a fight with her boyfriend. Della refuses to leave, and threatens to tell Josey’s fussy, high society mother about her secret closet candy binges if Joesy doesn’t let her stay. So Josey finds herself doing Della’s bidding. She befriends Chloe, a woman who finds that books seem to appear whenever she might need them, and Adam, the mailman that Josey’s been crushing on for years. At first it’s hard to understand Josey’s slave-like commitment to her mother, or how Della could manage to stay in a closet as a long term arrangement. But the pieces of the puzzle come together eventually. Allen’s other work in the genre is also very much worth reading. Garden Spells is her best known (so much so that I don’t know if it qualifies as a “hidden gem” for the purposes of this list), First Frost, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, The Peach Keeper and Lost Lake. In the wrong mood these might come off as saccharine but in the right mood they’re just the right sweet treat.
“She bought a plume of blue cotton candy before they left the food booths, and she picked at it while they headed down the row of booths occupied by residents of Bald Slope who had spent all summer making walnut salad bowls and jars of pickled watermelon rind to sell at the festival. Snow flurries began to fall and they swirled around people’s legs like house cats. It was magical, this snowglobe world.”
5. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff– Lauren Groff is better known for literary fiction (Fates and Furies, Arcadia) so I was surprised by this venture. Wilhelmina “Willie” Upton is close to completing her PhD in archaeology when she returns to her upstate New York home town of Templeton, after the conclusion of a disastrous affair with her adviser. That same day, a dead Loch Ness monster type creature is found in the lake. Willie discovers that her mother, a hippie, has found Jesus. She confesses to Wille that she isn’t the product of a commune orgy (which is what she original told her daughter) but is the daughter of one of the men in town, who is descended from the town’s founder. With that little information to go on, Willie begins to investigate, and she discovers that Templeton is the home to many monsters. The creature in the lake was one kind, but others are in the form of secrets kept by the townspeople. And some of these monsters are actually beautiful.
“Then, when we had done so, we put our hands upon the freezing cold monster, our monster. And this is what we felt: vertigo, an icicle through our strong hearts, our long-lost childhoods. Sunshine in a field and crickets and the sweet tealeaf stink of a new ball mitt and a rock glinting with mica and a chaw of bubblegum wrapping in sweet sweet tendrils down our throats and the warm breeze up our shorts and the low vibrato of lake loons and the sun and the sun and the warm sun and this is what we felt; the sun.”
6. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson- Full disclosure: I almost stopped reading this book after the first chapter, because in it, the main character is in a near fatal car accident. We’re treated to graphic descriptions of his injuries and medical treatment, to the point where I wanted to put down the book (and never get into a car again). I kept reading because reviews urged readers to push through those first few chapters, and I’m glad I did. After our unnamed narrator, a porn star by trade, is in his accident, he spends his days in the burn unit, planning his suicide. One day, in walks Marianne Engel, sculptress of “the grotesque”, who may be mentally ill or divinely inspired. She tells the Burned Man that they’ve known each other in a past life, and he humors her and listens to their elaborate love love story unfolding over several hundred years. We can attribute Marianne’s long outrageous tale to mental illness, and the Burned Man’s eventual belief in it to his morphine addiction following his accident. Or we can take the plunge and go through this story with a sense of magic.
“This will mark the third time that an arrow has entered my chest. The first time brought me to Marianne Engel. The second time separated us.
The third time will reunite us.”
7. Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock- Griffin is a London based artist. One day he gets a note from a South Pacific artist named Sabine Strohem. She congratulates him on his recent work and mentions a change that he made in the creative process. Griffin never told anyone about that, but Sabine claims to “share his sight”. She may have a telepathic connection to Griffin. Or she may be completely imaginary. We read the letters that they exchange. In fact, the book is made up of removable letters, postcards and artwork. You know the temptation to go through someone else’s things, and read their mail? This is a perfect way to indulge that. We get to know these characters through their art & handwriting, as well as the content of their letters. It’s a tactile, sensory, literary experience. It’s follow by two direct sequels; Sabine’s Notebook, and The Golden Mean. There’s a secondary trilogy with a new set of lovers with a mysterious connection to Griffin and Sabine. That’s made up of The Gryphon, Alexandria, and The Morning Star. The Pharos Gate brings the story to a final conclusion.
“Our house was a temple to The Book. We owned thousands, nay millions of books. They lined the walls, filled the cupboards, and turned the floor into a maze far more complex than Hampton Court’s. Books ruled out lives. They were our demi-gods.”
8. The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes- A mysterious spirit arrives at 66 Star Street in Dublin. It makes itself at home and watches the lives of the residents unfold as it counts down to…something. The building is home to Katie, a 40 year old PR worker with a commitment phobic boyfriend. It’s also the home of newlyweds Meave and Matt, who are bound together by a secret that may eventually drive them apart. Then there’s Jemima, an elderly psychic who lives in the building. Her son, Fionn, is staying with her temporarily as he auditions for TV shows. The spirit sneaks around the building, learning all it can about the residents and unknowlingly brings their lives together in unexpected ways.
“A cynical type might suggest that it was all a little too perfect. But a cynical type would be wrong.”
9. Night Film by Marisha Pessl- Ashley Cordova, 24 year old daughter of acclaimed horror filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, is found dead in an abandoned building in New York City. Journalist Scott McGrath once tried to do a story on the reclusive Cordova. That attempt cost him his job and his marriage. Yet he can’t help but be intrigued by Ashely’s death. Why is her life, and her father’s, so shrouded in mystery? Cordova lives on a vast estate known as The Peak, where all his films are shot. He no longer leaves the compound. Why? As Scott investigates he comes across several explanations for Cordova’s reclusiveness and Ashley’s death. These range from black magic to human failure. But as his investigations draw Scott closer to the legendary filmmaker, his life begins to resemble a dark, disturbing, Codrova film. This book plays with the edge between reality and fantasy. The supernatural explanations for Ashley’s fate are given just as much (sometimes more) credibility as the more realistic ones. This isn’t a book to read if you expect every i dotted and every t crossed. But if you’re up for a weird trip, this one is a great ride.
“Mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love. It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are. Will you step back and cover your eyes? Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out?”
10. Going Bovine by Libba Bray- Cameron Smith is a pretty average high school junior until he gets some bad news: he has Creutzfeldt-Jacob aka “mad cow” disease and he’s going to die soon. When he gets a – possibly hallucinatory – visit from Dulcie, a guardian angel with a major sugar addiction, he gets a flash of hope. According to Dulcie, a cure exists, if he’s willing to look for it. With the help of Gonzo, a hypochondriac, video gaming dwarf, he goes off in search of it. The two embark on a crazy road trip through the side of America that most people never get to see. This is a bizarre, trippy take on Don Quixote. Cameron may be crazy, he may be brilliant, he may be dying, and he may be attacking windmills. Gonzo makes for a Sancho Panza who carries around a yard gnome that is possibly also a Norse god. Dulcie is of course the punk rock, angelic Dulcinea. It’s trippy, it’s funny, and if you just go with it, it’s occasionally brilliant.
“As a kid, I imagined lots of different scenarios for my life. I would be an astronaut. Maybe a cartoonist. A famous explorer or rock star. Never once did I see myself standing under the window of a house belonging to some druggie named Carbine, waiting for his yard gnome to steal his stash so I could get a cab back to a cheap motel where my friend, a neurotic, death-obsessed dwarf, was waiting for me so we could get on the road to an undefined place and a mysterious Dr. X, who would cure me of mad cow disease and stop a band of dark energy from destroying the universe.”